Somewhere out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a giant floating garbage patch. But garbage continent might be a better term, since the debris actually covers a swath of the North Pacific reaching from Japan to North America. Imagine life on that eighth continent—ecosystems of tangled fishing nets and lost flip-flops, and runaway red balloons, all mixed up in a cloudy soup of familiar plastics. Fish and plankton and other sea creatures enter at their peril, risking bites of delicious-looking synthetic bits that might never exit their small bodies. An ecosystem where discarded objects take life as if to reinstate their own.
The garbage patch moves at the whim of the tides, the ebb and flow controlled by the movement of the moon. But it’s beholden, also, to the ocean’s waves and to the wayward winds that direct them. Wind currents in the northern hemisphere follow a circular pattern of expansion based on the air’s heat content, cyclically creeping northward until they reach the pole. But the earth is always spinning—and this creates a peculiar effect on the direction of the winds. The earth spins more quickly at the equator, where most of its mass is centered. As the winds flow north, the ground beneath them is no longer travelling at the same rotational speed as the place they have just left behind. This constant, gradual slowing velocity leads the winds to lean slightly eastward in their trajectory—a phenomenon called the Coriolis Effect. This effect governs the currents at the ocean’s surface.
The waters that guide the garbage patch are actually a collection of currents that glide south along the coast of California and turn northwestward again near Mexico, propelled by the Coriolis that pushes the winds eastward. A similar set of currents exists in reverse off the coast of Japan, the winds stirring them into a large circular pattern that rings the Pacific. It’s in the midst of this ring of currents that a plastic water bottle, left carelessly behind on some sun-streaked California beach, might find itself six years later—or, if it had instead fallen into the clear shining waters of Okinawa, in only a year. It’s worth mentioning that the garbage patch is really two patches—one for each twirling set of ocean currents, which we call gyres. They are tumultuous and ever-moving, yet the expanse of ocean in between them is still. It’s here where all the discarded, abandoned, and forgotten items find their resting place, trapped from the outside by the currents that dragged them in.
Last year researchers examined a piece of aluminum that had been washed ashore on a remote island. It looked to be part of Amelia Earhart’s twin-engine Lockheed Electra, the plane that carried her on her ill-fated journey around the world. Perhaps she too was a victim of a forgotten place—deep in the heart of the Pacific, on a small island (not of garbage) where no one had set foot for decades, if at all.
People searched the entire South Pacific for years after her disappearance, the goal of finding her alive eventually dwindling to hopes of finding closure. The world searched for that woman and turned up nothing but sporadic bits of conflicting evidence. Maybe she had wasted away on the heat of that island. Maybe she and her plane were swallowed whole by the ocean below, no currents to save them. Even the will of multiple governments wasn’t enough to discover the place where she lay. How is it any surprise, then, that islands of our own debris can float through those same waters, carefully unnoticed by anyone but the waves lapping at their tangled edges?
Far north, on the top of the globe, are the gas fields of Siberia. The Yamal peninsula juts out into the sea, spreading above the Arctic Circle. Loosely translated from Nenets, its name means “to the end of the world.” The entire northwestern area of the region hides ancient deposits of organic matter beneath the frozen ground: leaves, bones, and skin turned to fuel by thousands of years of intense heat and pressure deep within the earth.
It was indigenous land, once, governed by cautious agreement between man and nature. But gradually the cold, hard expanses of tundra have given way to the ravenous thirst for the energy stored within. The earth dies differently here. There is no bleached coral reef devoid of color and life, no animal exodus from a vibrant rainforest. Instead, industrial markers dot the permafrost, finally in construction after years of fight and stalled progress. Storage containers and processing machinery create new obstacles for wayward herds of reindeer. Gas wells are drilled hundreds of feet into the ground, extracting the raw substance from the earth and separating away the unwanted wastewater that accompanies it. The gas is piped to processing plants, where unwanted compounds—for instance mercury and nitrogen—are stripped away until it reaches the accepted standards for human use. The process is streamlined, yet threatening in its efficiency. The sheer volume of gas lying in wait promises more drilling and more machinery, and more changes to the delicate balance of the ecosystem.
Last summer, a hole opened up in the tundra—and then another, and another. At least ten, with more still to burst into being. Wide-mouthed and extending far deeper than the eye can measure, the craters stoked fear of their unknown origins. Some have turned into lakes too large even to swim across. Some come dangerously close to the gas plants that support the region, threatening to topple livelihoods with the ignition of one wayward spark. Were they alien portals to another world? What of the flashes of green light as the earth collapsed in on itself? Could it be the remains of a meteors falling from the sky? Maybe, but the crater walls are smooth walls and there are no charred rock shards anywhere around the impact sites. Perhaps the steady march of rising temperatures melted large accumulations of ice, leaving nothing behind but empty space. Or, equally likely, the craters are windows into some cavernous space below the ground, opened by an eruption of the methane gas that lurks there. Scientists expect more to come—more sinking earth, more explosions, more caverns. New gateways to the unknown.
CAMERA FORD B’16 is fragile, too.